Proudhon’s thought as a potentially transformative force within contemporary anarchism

I’m through the first couple of days, and I expect the bulk of the action, in a marathon week-long “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit’s DebateAnarchism forum. So far, it has been a surprisingly civil and instructive experience, and certainly an interesting way of testing out my rapprochement with the “mutualist” label. Many of the questions haven’t strayed far from the common questions of coexistence—”can theory X be compatible with theory Y“—or those concerning the basic concepts and vocabulary that dominate the usual capitalist vs. anti-capitalist debates, but, as I had hoped, there have been a few opportunities to break a bit of new ground. The most interesting of those instances, I think, came when a friend asked a question about the future of mutualism, which summons up for me all my ambivalences about school-building with the movement, but also seems to require tackling some specific applications of Proudhonian sociology that I’ve been approaching rather gingerly so far. The answer is probably bolder than anything I’ve written yet on what I see as the potential of mutualism, so I’ll just reproduce it here in its entirety:

Q.—Where do you see the (Neo-)Proudhonian side of Mutualism, or even Mutualism as a whole, in the next 15-20 years? Do you think it will be as known about and understood as anarchist Communism has become?

A.—15-20 years can be a long time. 20 years ago almost nobody knew much about Proudhon and mutualism except a few phrases. Even the standard dismissals were less well-known before mutualism started to reemerge and give people an occasion to be dismissive. So things can change rapidly. On the other hand, it’s one thing to make people aware that there is another school of thought out there and another to push past the mostly rote rejections. And what I take to be the “best case” for mutualism is sort of complicated, so that’s an additional difficulty.

I don’t think there’s any point in entering a popularity contest with communism or any of the other tendencies that people have built ideologies and firm identities around. If I have decided that “mutualism” is probably a good label to organize around, it was also pretty easy for me to walk away from that label for the better part of the last year and simply do the same work without the pretense that I was engaged in any sort of school-building.

It seems likely that mutualism or the Proudhonian element in anarchism will thrive to the extent that it can be made practically relevant to current struggles. There are all sorts of ways in which the Proudhonian sociology might enrich our understanding of those struggles, but most of them will involve overcoming both theoretical and ideological resistances. The basic challenges are to make up for 150 years of lost time, and, of course, to shift the perception of Proudhon’s thought which has developed to explain and defend the neglect. That means that proponents are going to have to be very, very on top of their game, engaging seriously not only with the ideas that they consider fundamentally “their own,” but with the ideas of the tendencies that currently hold a kind of hegemony within the anarchist movement.

It isn’t going to be enough to just do battle with those who oppose mutualist ideas without really knowing them. It’s going to be necessary to show that the whole history of anarchism might well have developed differently, and that the potential common ground between, say, mutualism and communism, not only exists but enriches communism, should it be acknowledged.

We might, for example, attempt to tackle the question of mutualism and the radical labor movement. Proudhon’s The Political Capacity of the Working Classes potentially has a lot to offer to those with a class-struggle focus. It certainly offers us a very different Proudhon than the one who was concerned about the efficacy of strikes in 1846, and it gives us a window in on the background of the First International. I’m back to work translating it. But let’s say that a year from now we have a nice, clear English version of the text. There is still a work of interpretation and integration to be done—probably before much of anyone can be convinced to even read the thing. It’s not enough to present the facts from 1864. It’s necessary to drag them into the present, and even into a somewhat different present than most anarchists live in. We have a document from the relatively early days of the workers’ movement, and we want to transport it into the waning days of a certain sort of workers’ struggle. How do we make the ideas in it living and new? How do we account for the 150 years of development that we can assume Proudhon would have given the ideas, had he lived that “thousand years” he talked about? Part of the answer is undoubtedly to attempt to push things farther towards that more general model of “agro-industrial federation.” Another might be to attempt to integrate the theory of individualities and collectivities from the works of the 1850s more completely into the proposals in “Political Capacity”—or even to scrap the material from 1864, except as a kind of dated example of implementation (the way I’m inclined to treat the mutual bank), in order to reimagine a 21st century application. But what does a model of class struggle, for example, look like, if we employ Proudhon’s sociology? Social classes are easy to recognize as collective actors and as such they have to be incorporated into our understanding of social relations. But the sort of understanding of individual and collective interests we draw from Proudhon is going to mean that class solidarity looks rather different than it might to most self-identified class-struggle anarchists. Some theoretical problems are solved by acknowledging that the interests of, say, the working class (as a collective actor) may be different from, and even opposed in some instances, to those of individual workers. As a consequence, the practice of solidarity in struggle probably requires some rethinking. The gains, in terms of insights into the dynamics of class societies, seem significant, and it seems they ought to pay off in terms of improved practice. But there is always going to be that moment when those committed to the interests of the working class have to come to terms with the fact that such a commitment walks a fine line between anarchist solidarity and an anti-anarchist external constitution of society by classes. Now, for neo-Proudhonians, I would hope that these sorts of awkward awakening would gradually become familiar, if not necessarily less traumatic. But if you haven’t already signed on for the project, some of these adjustments are probably going to seem pretty damn extreme, costly and counter-intuitive.

Again, if we can correct the mistakes in Proudhon on sex/gender/family/etc—not, in my mind, a very difficult project, but a serious stigma to overcome nonetheless—then we’re faced with a version of the same can of worms. Rethinking the politics of identity and identification around sexes, genders, families, etc., that are collective actors with potential interests of their own might well provide some exits from some really troubling cul-de-sacs, but the cost and perceived risk involved in rethinking the details is going to be substantial. In the end, I’m not sure that a shift from what we have now to a mutualized framework would be much more radical than the changes that have occurred in the related discourses in the last fifteen years, but the direction of the shift, and the negative perceptions to be overcome, mean that it would be a much more against-the-grain sort of transformation.

Face it, the approach that we’ve associated ourselves with poses all sorts of threats to our certainty and comfort, even in our own beliefs, at a time when there is already way too damn much uncertainty and discomfort, and in an era that is arguably at least a bit fundamentalist just about any which way you look. For me, the discoveries that the notion of “anarchy” was always a bit more complicated than we thought in Proudhon’s though, the engagement with the ungovernability of anarchism, and the possibility of an absolutist anarchism, have all been exciting and useful work, but I expect a lot of people will have wildly varying mileage…

If there are people willing to be serious, committed gadflies, teasing out the instances where there are theoretical or practical advances to be made by applying Proudhon’s thought, who are also willing to cover most of the distance to meet those of other tendencies who might be open to those insights, well, mutualism might well make a fairly serious, important mark on anarchism in the next couple of decades. But that “if” is obviously a pretty serious conditional…

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2684 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.